Singing the Old Wobbly Songs

  roadshow.small_On November 7, the Labor Chorus appeared with the Joe Hill Roadshow, a varying collection of musicians and spoken word artists traveling the country to remind us about Joe Hill and our labor history. It was our pleasure to back up the amazing performers David Rovics, Chris Chandler and George Mann. If the Joe Hill Roadshow is coming to your area, go see it. The show is now touring the West.

On the 100th anniversary of the execution of labor hero and songwriter Joe Hill, I’ve been reminiscing about our little chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) in Pullman, Washington in the early 1970s. I still have my dues book in a box somewhere. We all had Little Red Songbooks and I remember we used to meet in a basement (must have been Koinonia House, where many radical gatherings took place) and sing the Wobbly songs. Most of us were students at Washington State University along with a few faculty members.

The IWW was headquartered in Chicago then (it has moved back to Chicago from San Francisco) and we would send to the international office for union materials, which seemed to have been stored there since the 1920s. My dues book had a space for the year that read 192_. You had to fill in which industry you worked in. That confused me until another member filled in Education. That’s when I understood that Education is an industry. Duh! There were wonderful pen and ink posters that were shipped in cardboard tubes too.Little_red_songbook

On the 100th anniversary of the birth of the IWW in 2005, I went to a celebration and conference at UC Santa Cruz. I went because I knew Archie Green would be there. Archie was a labor historian and folklorist who was singlehandedly responsible for the American Folklife Preservation Act. I had worked with both of Archie’s sons who were electricians in my IBEW local. One was an electrical inspector with me, but I could never get him to introduce me to Archie. I had to go to this public event to meet him.

I think it was Labor Day, 2007, when Archie was 90, that was declared Archie Green Day in SF. The Labor Archives and Research Center hosted a celebration at the ILWU local 34 hall. Archie stood onstage and spoke about his new book, which had just been published, The Big Red Songbook. He told us that this guy whom his parents had known through the Workman’s Circle in NYC had started the project of compiling all the Wobbly songs and their history. This guy, John Neuhaus, was dying of cancer in 1958 and when Archie went to visit him in the hospital he made Archie promise to finish the project. It only took him 49 years. Of course I have an autographed copy.

Archie became my mentor. He promised he would fund a book project about the history of the tradeswomen movement if I could just get the goddamned manuscript written. I submitted an outline and we argued about the focus. I interviewed Archie and learned that his Jewish family had emigrated from Ukraine and his father had been in the 1905 revolution. Archie was a fierce mentor. Two weeks before he died he was kicking my butt about the book. I said by the time I get the manuscript finished, books will be extinct (it’s still unfinished)MMchorus

Heres’ the thing: I’m still singing the old Wobbly songs! A couple of years ago I joined the Rockin’ Solidarity Labor Heritage Chorus (the name might even be longer than that. I can never remember). It’s part of a subculture of labor choruses, still here but dwindling. I regret that I didn’t get involved sooner.

The guy who was the inspiration for that little subculture in the Bay Area was Jon Fromer, a singer/songwriter who had worked on a TV show called We Do The Work and organized the Bolshevik Café, a kind of Commie variety show. The twice-yearly Bolshevik Café had been the project of the Billie Holiday sect of the CPUSA. Commies who knew how to put on a show! I got there as often as I could. One time I spotted Angela Davis in the audience. Jon also founded the annual Western Workers Cultural Heritage Festival in 1987. Volunteers have taken on the organizing, but the old commies are aging and 2016 will be the last year. It’s held on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend at the Plumbers’ Hall in Burlingame. Jon died a couple of years ago. I hadn’t gone to the Heritage Fest until I joined the chorus and we performed there, though I knew about it. Like much of the remnants of the Left, it’s a rather insular group of old timers with a tiny sprinkling of younger folks.

The work is carried on by people like my chorus director, Patricia Wynne, who founded our chorus in 1999. Although, she’s no spring chicken either. Most of the chorus members are old people—mostly labor activists–like me. We come out to sing at picket lines and demonstrations along with Occupella, a little group that formed during Occupy, which includes the daughter of Malvina Reynolds who is now 80 years old herself, and the Brass Liberation Orchestra, a lefty marching band.

cropped-laborchorusheader1Pat has of late taken to writing what I call operas for lack of a better term. They are stories told with song and spoken words. My favorite production was taken from The Warmth of Others Suns. We sang with Vukani Mawethu, a local group that sings South African choral music. For me this was our most inspirational “opera” because these old black people—members of both choral groups–got up on stage and told their own personal stories of migrating from the South. Two of them, Alex and Harriet Bagwell, were old CP members who I first heard sing at the Bolshevik Café. Very accomplished musicians, they will be singing with our chorus again for the next opera, about working women. I’ve written a song for it about the crappy jobs I did before becoming an electrician (called Sister in the Brotherhood) and Pat put it in the program.

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Musical sisters Pnina Tobin, Molly Martin, Ruth Mahaney

I can carry a tune, but I’ve got a lot to learn about being a singer. It turns out I’m a belter, like Ethel Merman. I always knew I had a loud voice but who knew it translated to singing? I call myself a failed alto because, although my goal was to learn to sing a part, my old brain never got good enough at it and I finally joined the soprano section so I can sing the melody. Sometimes I have to strain to reach the high notes.

Some of the old songs are kind of hokey and the music rather boring, but some—especially the old Joe Hill rewrites of old Christian hymns—I just love to sing. Some I remember from those basement sing-ins in Pullman, like The Preacher and the Slave. “You will eat by and by in that glorious land above the sky.” I especially love the Wobbly Doxology. “Praise boss whose bloody wars we fight. Praise him, fat leech and parasite!” Instead of Amen at the end of the song, we sing “Aww Hell!” But I never learned Rebel Girl, about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, probably because we couldn’t stomach the condescending attitude toward women. “She’s a precious pearl.” Blech! My chorus sings it, but with some changed lyrics to make us feminists happy.

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Flours + Flowers = Sex

The Rosa Luxemburg Collective was the culmination of our years’ long experiments in collective living arrangements in Pullman, Washington.

Rosa Luxemburg Collective Photo Molly Martin
Rosa Luxemburg Collective Photo Molly Martin

Thirteen of us student activists rented an old fraternity house and split all the costs. As members of a hippie commune, we believed in locally grown, organic food. There were no local farmers’ markets so we started a food co-op and began looking into buying food in bulk from large producers. This opened our eyes to the nature of the food distribution system. It turned out that in the Northwest much of the growing and handling of food was controlled by a Mormon empire and the closest warehouses were across the state line in Idaho.

I was the bread maker and wished for whole grain flour made from a kind of wheat they used in Europe. You couldn’t get it then. Bread in the 1970s in the U.S. was mostly of the Wonder variety. Whole grains were just on the verge of popularily. In New York or Chicago you could find a local German bakery, but in our small town if you wanted whole grain bread, you had to bake it yourself.

Bread making requires the baker to be around for two risings, so twice a week on days when I wasn’t in class I’d bake all day. We ordered flour in 25 pound sacks, and stored it in the freezer to discourage bugs, so it was deliciously cold when I would first plunge my hands in. Making bread was my form of meditation. I used the Tassajara Bread Book method, making a spongey mass first so the yeast got a good start before growth-inhibiting oil and salt were added. The first batch of bread would be eaten immediately by lurkers lured to the kitchen by the yeasty smell. I knew to make enough so there would be loaves left for the next couple of days.

Grain silos, circa 1973 Photo: Molly Martin
Grain silos, circa 1973 Photo: Molly Martin

The irony was that Pullman is surrounded by wheat fields. One year there was a glut of wheat and the grain silos were completely filled, forcing farmers to leave mountains of the unhulled grain near the train tracks. I imagined jumping into the piles of grain as one would jump into raked leaves, falling in like quicksand. I imagined it stone ground by old-fashioned mills. I imagined it refined and baked into perfect loaves.

The wheat fields surrounding us seemed terribly romantic from afar, driving by them on Highway 2. Winter wheat is planted in the fall and begins to grow before being covered by snow, then peeks up through the melting snow in spring. By the end of the spring semester, tall spikes undulate along the rolling hills. The sight of those softly swaying hills in spring makes you want to run out into nature, strip off your clothes and commune with her. One day my friend Joe and I decided to do just that.

Big porch farmhouse circa 1973 from a roll of film found 20 years later
Big porch farmhouse circa 1973 from a roll of film found 20 years later. Photo: Molly Martin

Joe was a fellow student who lived in a collective house farther out in the Palouse country, a century-old uninsulated wood-heated farmhouse, the kind with two storeys and a huge porch. Keeping the interior of that building warm in Palouse winters required the burning of much wood and continual fire stoking. Mostly the human residents were just cold. The fabulousness of spring, when it arrives in this northern climate, cannot be overstated. Spring fever, I believe, is more truly celebrated in places where winter grips with an icy hand.

That April day was a spring cliché. The sun shone warmly and fluffy clouds floated in a clear blue sky. It was the time in spring when various shades of green compete for attention: the delicate yellowish green of early spring leaves just beginning to bud, the dense dark forest green of firs. The wheat fields were a bright emerald green, sort of wizard-of-oz-ish. When I walked out of the farmhouse, I expected to see the yellow brick road shining in front of me.

Visiting friends at another collective house in the Palouse
Visiting friends at another collective house in the Palouse. Photo: Molly Martin

In the sixties there was a TV ad for something. It involved a couple running toward each other through a wildflower meadow, embracing wildly and–I forget what happens next. I was very taken with the wildflower meadow and tried to reenact this running embrace when I could get a friend to play the other part. Through years of trial and error I found that wildflower meadows, any meadows really, were hard to run through, especially when one is looking up at one’s soon-to-be embracer and not at the ground. Rodent holes, depressions dug by hooves and unseen drainage ditches create truly hazardous conditions. Yet this image persisted in my brain. Meadows equal romance. OK, meadows equal sex. That’s what the TV was saying, right? Today it would be an ad for Cialis.

There was another factor at work here too, besides spring fever and the power of advertising. A subculture that encouraged sex in the outdoors had blossomed in the Palouse and we were part of it–cultural envoys in a way. By god, we took our envoyship seriously, feeling we owed it to the culture to have sex outdoors as much a possible. There was an entire day devoted to the worship of outdoor sex. “Hooray hooray for the eighth of May; it’s outside intercourse day,” had been a fraternity slogan long before I got to WSU. Our idea was to broaden the whole concept. Why focus only on one day a year?

The swaying wheat fields called to us and Joe and I ran through them with abandon, something, it seemed to us, young people were supposed to do. I was a country girl and so knew, as I said, that fields are not always our friends. I knew, too, that terrible chemicals were applied to agricultural lands. DDT, not yet banned, had been sprayed liberally everywhere during my childhood. We were admonished to keep our shoes on in the orchard and not to swim in the canals and creeks where farmers dumped pesticide residues.

All these things I knew but the TV ad image still had a hold on me. Joe and I loped up the hill behind the farmhouse. When we got to the top, we had a speclacular view of the Palouse, Kamiak Butte in the distance. Had we thought to bring a blanket? Possibly, but even with a blanket, the thick stalks of wheat resisted flattening. Up close, the wheat field was far less romantic than it had seemed far away. The cracked earth looked dead, sprouting nothing but wheat. There were no weeds. This worried me. If whatever had been used on this field could kill weeds, what would it do to our butts, or any part of us that touched the earth?

As much as we felt we owed the culture outdoor sex, the outdoors was feeling less and less sexy. We made a flat place to sit down, but then of course, wheat obscured the view. “Let’s get out of here,” one of us said.